What does life with ADHD or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder among Singaporean women look like?
ADHD doesn’t merely affect someone’s ability to concentrate or complete tasks, it also affects their learning, academic and work performance. Consequences of this chronic, lifelong condition directly impact careers, academic paths, relationships, physical and mental health, finances and more, explains Unlocking ADHD founder, Moonlake Lee.
Vogue Singapore spoke to these ADHD battlers on their hidden struggles with this neurodevelopmental disorder.
ADHD or a mood disorder?
“Individuals with unmanaged ADHD may sometimes find managing day to day demands stressful, and have trouble with emotional regulation, experiencing symptoms such as low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, temper outbursts and significant mood fluctuations,” says clinical psychologist, Jean Tan of Clinical Psychology Associates, who treats women and children with ADHD in her practice. “Due to poor coping, it may inadvertently lead to mood disorders.”
“In many women, some of these ADHD traits are treated as mood disorders but the underlying ADHD is still untreated. Common comorbidities in women are anxiety and depression—especially when the ADHD is diagnosed later in life. Usually the diagnosis is sparked by overwhelm in the systems of coping resulting in the mood disorder,” says Esther David, aged 25.
So how can women differentiate their symptoms from ADHD, a chronic health condition with mental illnesses such as depression?
“ADHD symptoms do share some similarities with for example, depression,” says Tan. “A symptom of depression is poor concentration and attention. In a depressed person, poor attention and concentration may appear as difficulty focusing, forgetful, not listening attentively. Hence, corroborative history is crucial in the process of an adult ADHD diagnosis.”
The corroborative history Tan speaks of includes experiencing these symptoms since childhood, as many similar symptoms can stem from depression, social anxiety and PTSD. As such, it’s important to seek the guidance of a medical professional to determine the right diagnosis and care for you.
It is believed that girls often miss being diagnosed with ADHD in childhood as, unlike boys, they’re not as disruptive in class or present less overt symptoms. Grace, aged 31, shares that “women are largely taught to ‘behave’ properly and people-please, whether intentionally or not, which might result in hiding many ADHD traits due to fear that we’re not behaving as we should. As girls tend to be more compliant, their ADHD traits are often overlooked as these are less disruptive in the classroom or in family life.”
“The concept of masking has not been researched extensively, however, we can understand it as “impression management” to try to fit in a social group,” Tan explains.
Forgetfulness and procrastination
“I feel like ADHD women struggle with things like forgetfulness, procrastination, extreme emotional sensitivity, etc. is something a lot of neurotypical people can relate to. The difference for ADHD people is that it’s serious enough to impair our ability to function and lead our best lives,” says Lisa, 38.
“My friends forget stuff but not to the point that they get marked down in performance reviews. They get distracted but not to the point that it impacts their relationships with their spouses, or they fail their driving tests repeatedly,” says Lisa.
Those living with ADHD may have to work extra hard at completing tasks. Emmanuella Ananda, 27, attests to experiencing the “effects of burnout sooner and more frequently with an academic or professional workload that the majority of colleagues find manageable.”
“Academic tasks leaves one easily fatigued and frustrated. School reports reflect an ongoing difficulty in concentration, memory, organisation, and task completion as well as underperforming throughout one’s life,” says Ananda, who says it’s common for ADHD sufferers to be told to “stop being distracted and focus”.
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“I wonder where my keys are. I wonder where my wallet is. I wonder where my watch is. I wonder where the time went,” says Gsy, 38, who also admits to spacing out easily. The self-described ‘hobby hopper’ says it’s a balance between “cramming too many things into a day’s schedule” and simultaneously “not knowing how to say no to any plans.”
Follow-through on tasks is similarly difficult, as it’s extra difficult to stick to instructions or work given, whether at school, work or home. Which may explain why people with ADHD are stigmatised as “being lazy and purposely choosing not to listen,” says Gsy.
“People don’t realise it might be because we genuinely forgot or zoned out in the middle of the conversation without meaning to… it all just ties in together.”
Tan offers another perspective to the believe that people with ADHD experience poor memory. “On the contrary, ADHD individuals can have strong working memory. However, if their attention and concentration is poor, they may not have captured the information, hence it may come across as forgetfulness.”
Sharon Chin, 48, shares that her poor housekeeping and organisation skills, combined with ‘dreamy moments’ in which her mind wanders in between tasks, meetings and conversations is another hallmark of ADHD. “I wanted to do household chores and work at the same time, but the one that gets done first is usually the chores as they offer instant gratification.”
As Ananda finds it difficult to sustain a level of attention that’s required for “retention and comprehension of information for more than 15 minutes”, she finds herself either daydreaming, blanking out or actively seeking distractions.
Time blindness and disorganisation
From missing a key deadline to losing a pair of glasses, many factors experienced by those with ADHD mean they constantly face the “consequences of disorganisation and forgetfulness despite trying to change,” Ananda explains.
“Everything is ‘the other day’ or ‘that one time’,” shares Jannah. Chin also explains that it’s not uncommon to take forever to get ready before leaving the house for an outing.
“Time blindness may be in part due to executive functioning,” Tan clarifies. “It is the brain’s prefrontal lobe that allows us to plan, organise, initiate, self-monitor and control one’s responses (executive functioning). This part of the brain acts as a self-monitor that informs one if they are punctual or whether their plans are executed efficiently.”
For Gsy, it’s “the sheer fatigue of anticipating procedures needed to complete a task. That can mean just feeling mentally exhausted by doing multiple simple checks that are usually a breeze for most.”
“My brain feels disorganised and keeps getting messy, and it takes significant effort to keep re-organising the mess,” says Gsy. Her time blindness means that she’s “unable to gauge the length of time required for tasks and has poor time management.” Unable to execute tasks, Gsy says this, and the perfect storm of procrastination and emotional dysregulation lead to task paralysis.
For Regina Tay, 42, it’s the never-ending struggle of “being busy yet never doing the thing I set to do at the start. I did everything else! Just not what I should be doing.”
A lack of object permanence
“Out of sight, out of mind. The mess in my house makes absolute sense to me,” says Gsy. “That way I won’t forget what I already have.”
Simone, 27, confesses to misplacing things often. “I lose things a lot, especially when in a group and are distracted by many things.” Simeone was also prone to wandering off as a kid and even now, occasionally loses her partner in the supermarket.
“Somehow we already feel disadvantaged so we overcompensate to double up the work for fear of being overlooked or underestimated,” explains David.
From a psychological perspective, over-preparedness “can be understood from a mismatch between skills and environmental demand which leads to excessive energy or attention to complete a task,” offers Tan. “To counterbalance it, a person may spend more time and effort to learn or complete a given task.”
Being super talkative
Like many, Simone describes herself as “super talkative and always interrupting lessons” because of her “inexplicable compulsion to talk to friends.”
This is a common symptom, as those with ADHD may have trouble inhibiting or controlling their responses, says Tan. “Often, they may blurt out what is in their mind, without consideration of how the message will be received.”
“My brain runs faster than my mouth,” adds Tay. “So my words are always incomplete or butchered badly. You’re either stuck not doing anything, or you are on Instagram and you get stuck there for a while and just can’t get out of it so you just keep scrolling.”
“Imbalances in motivation can occur in people with ADHD,” says Tan. “They may hyperfocus on tasks that are interesting to them, or procrastinate on tasks that they view as boring or tedious.”
Ananda describes hyperfocus as not being able to tell the forest from the trees or “hyperfocusing on one aspect of an issue or problem.” The outcome? A difficulty in recognising and integrating difference facets of the problem that are required to provide a “more nuanced perspective of the situation.”
On the flipside, Jannah, 33, relates, saying that it’s common for her to jump “from one thing to another before completing an activity.” With multiple tabs open both figuratively and literally on her phone or computer, she also experiences thousands of unopened emails and “thoughts that jump from A to F immediately rather than following a logical sequence of A, B, C, D, E and F.”
Think you may have ADHD? You’re not alone. Consult a psychiatrist or psychologist for a diagnosis, being sure to check in advance whether your mental health professional is experienced in seeing ADHD patients. To receive treatment as a subsidised patient, obtain a referral from your polyclinic. Unlocking ADHD, a Singapore-based group also offers support and first steps on their site, Discord and Facebook groups.